Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman



I begin by saying I can keep no secrets in writing about this book. In the first 40% of the book you know something is up, but you don’t know quite what it is. I knew that much from what ANZ LitLovers wrote about it. But I must say I didn’t guess what it was.

It begins with the story of a young man Jacky escaping from what we later learn is a farm owned by “Settlers” where he was an underfed, overworked slave. His story is told concurrently with that of the very nasty Sister Bagra, who runs a mission that trains the “Native” children to become those slaves. Another thread is that of Sergeant Rohan whose leave from policing a town was delayed by the need to track down Jacky. Esperance is a young woman who tries to manage a community of Natives who live hidden lives and must move when the Settlers threaten to find them. Johnny Star is a former Settler Trooper who was finally sickened by a massacre of the Natives and became an outlaw, and joined a small gang of Natives.

At the outset the assumption is that the Settlers are the British at the time of and after their invasion of Australia. Here’s the view expressed by Sergeant Rohan about the Natives:

Surely the life they were given in the settlements was better than living pointless, aimless lives in the dirt like they always had. There was no purpose to their lives now and had surely been none before the Settlers had arrived to help them. They lacked ambition, lack energy and drive, seemly their only direction was towards alcohol, their only desires to drink, to breed, and unfortunately, to escape.

But the reality shifts at the beginning of Chapter 10 with a snippet written by an unknown author in 2041 describing the colonization by the Settlers who arrived from another planet.

“Bear in mind, they do not fear us, they do not hate us, we simply do not conform to their narrow definition of ‘people.’ Rather they look upon us as merely part of the fauna of this planet they are settling and intending to tame.” And later “They will ignore us as the Colonial powers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ignored the Natives in the lands they invaded.” And “Not since Europeans armed with guns, with cannons, and with complete conviction that settling in Australia was their right, has a Native population been as hopeless and relatively unarmed as we are now. Our most powerful weapons are to them what wooden spears were to men with muskets.”

The invaders are vulnerable to heat: they are like frogs in that they require moisture to survive and are referred to by the Natives as Toads. It is only places like Australia and Afghanistan where any resistance by humans remains.

The threads of the various stories are woven together in a compelling story and the message powerfully delivered. I learned that the term for this is speculative fiction. The author identifies with Noongar people and this is her first novel.

Claire Coleman, Terra Nullius, Hachette Australia, 2017, 263 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available from Amazon.



  • It’s amazing, isn’t it, the way the plot unfolds, when all along you’ve been thinking you were in the colonial period – and then it’s all inverted to make the author’s point…
    A very clever and unsettling book!

  • The foreshadowing was well done so you didn’t feel misled. The plot commands your attention, strengthening the message. Such a well-done book, I thought. I hope it gets the attention it deserves.


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